There have been some rather strange laws passed in different cities and states during our nation’s history. For instance, at one time in Maryland it was illegal to hold your nose closed for longer than a second. In North Carolina it was forbidden to plow a cotton field using an elephant. Portland, Oregon forbade its residents from roller-blading in public restrooms. Hawaii made it illegal to insert pennies in one’s ear. In Kentucky, you weren’t allowed to appear on a public highway wearing nothing but a bathing suit—unless you were also carrying a club (James F. Colaianni, Sunday Sermon Treasury, #536). In the town of Natome, Kansas, it’s illegal to practice knife throwing at anyone wearing a striped suit. It’s forbidden in New York City to open an umbrella in front of a horse. One rural township in Minnesota requires a man to tip his hat when passing a cow. It’s illegal in Louisiana to whistle on a Sunday, in Massachusetts to eat peanuts in church, and in Alabama to wear a false mustache in church if it makes people laugh. Lastly, here in Michigan it’s against the law to hitch a crocodile to a fire hydrant—and I’d bet there must be an interesting story behind that particular ordinance (homily notebook, “Law”).
These highly unusual laws show that adults can easily get caught up in rules and regulations; children, however, think in simpler terms. A child once said, “If I were President, I’d make everyone love one another.” We know it’s not that simple, of course, but this idea does go to the heart of the matter—for if people were motivated by love, most laws would be unnecessary or redundant. As Jesus teaches us, our happiness and salvation depend not on rules and commandments, but on love.
Everything God does is rooted in love—and so if we want to please Him, we must relate and respond to Him in this same spirit. In the Book of Exodus (22:20-26), the Lord stresses the importance of taking care of widows and orphans, and of acting justly toward the poor and aliens—that is, foreigners far from home; this commandment is a sign of God’s loving concern for the lowly and for those unable to care for themselves. In Thessalonica (1 Thes 1:5-10), St. Paul praises the Christians for imitating Christ, rather than merely obeying laws. Paul himself, before his conversion, had wrongly believed that salvation came from perfectly obeying the Jewish Law, or Torah—but then he discovered that a loving relationship with Christ matters more than anything else. He reminds the Thessalonians that when he and his fellow missionaries came preaching the Gospel, they put their faith into practice by giving a good example—and he rejoices that his converts are now doing the very same thing. This, he says, is truly a sign that the Holy Spirit is working within them. In the Gospel of Matthew (22:34-40), a lawyer or scholar of the Jewish law tried to trap Jesus in His speech by asking which commandment was the most important, hoping to trip Him up on a technicality. Our Lord overcame this challenge by giving an answer which summed up everything: love of God and of others is the most important thing of all.
Every school year I do an 8th grade religion series on conscience and morality, and in it I ask the students to pretend it’s twenty years from now, and that they’re married and have children. I tell them that, as parents, they can be obeyed by their children either out of fear or out of love, and when I ask how many of them would want be obeyed out of love, every hand goes up. That’s a normal or natural response—and that’s also how God feels. He seeks not our fearful or grudging obedience to His commandments, but our wholehearted response as part of a loving relationship; this matters far more to Him than all our religious rules and rituals combined. Obviously we can’t use love as an excuse to ignore legitimate rules and commandments; these serve an important purpose—namely, helping us know the correct and loving thing to do in various circumstances. Perfectly following them, however, doesn’t achieve very much unless we genuinely have love in our hearts.
Today we are challenged to look at our understanding and experience of religion. It must not be merely a set of rules to follow, but a way of life which helps us become more loving toward God and those around us—especially those in need. This means, for instance, trying to live not only according to the Ten Commandments—which tell us what to do and what not to do—but also by the eight Beatitudes, or blessings, which give us the proper attitudes or outlooks on life. We must be poor in spirit, merciful, and have a hunger and thirst for holiness. True religion means not asking “What’s the minimum I can get by with doing?,” but rather, “What can I do to express my gratitude to God for all He’s done for me?” Loving God and our neighbor the way Jesus tells us to means constantly striving to overcome our faults, and continually trying to grow in virtue and grace.
Laws may be necessary in earthly affairs, but they have no power to give us eternal life—and that’s why it’s a waste and a mistake to see religion merely as a set of rules to follow, or as nothing more than a way of avoiding getting into trouble with God. The commandments and customs we have are meant to guide us toward genuine love of God and each other. Jesus gave His life that we might understand and act upon this truth: namely, we show our devotion to God not by the laws we observe or the rules we follow, but by sharing the love we have in our hearts.